Harlequin cats aren’t a separate cat breed. The term “harlequin” actually refers to a coat pattern. Cats with this pattern have a bicolor or tricolor coat coloration. They’ll have predominantly white fur with spots of one or two other colors dispersed throughout their head and body. The colored patches can be found in almost any color, including black, gray, orange, cream, red, and brown.
Read on to learn more about this unique coloration, including what it can look like and which popular cat breeds often have it.
The Earliest Records of Harlequin Cats in History
Because the harlequin refers to a coat pattern and not a specific cat breed, little is known about its humble beginnings. The term ‘harlequin’ appears to refer to a character in an early form of professional theatre known as commedia dell’arte. This character is known for his checkered costume. The harlequin pattern, while decidedly not checkered, is just as unique and eye-catching as this Italian character’s costume.
How Harlequin Cats Gained Popularity
The harlequin pattern makes for a gorgeous cat, so it’s not hard to see why cats with this patterning are some of the most sought-after and beloved breeds.
Take the Japanese Bobtail, for example. This is one of the most well-known harlequin-patterned cat breeds. Though they’re native to Japan and have been known in that country for centuries, they’re now found throughout the world. They first made their way to the Western hemisphere from Japan in the late 1960s, and as of 2013, there are a handful of Japanese Bobtail breeders in North America.
Another breed that often has the harlequin patterning is the Sphynx. We know what you’re thinking: how can a hairless cat have a bi- or tri-colored pattern? Sphynx cats can actually display a wide variety of markings on their skin, from solid colors to points to tabbies and, yes, even harlequin. The Sphynx is actually one of the most popular cat breeds, according to the Cat Fanciers’ Association.1 The breed was developed through selective breeding in the 1960s, and its popularity really took off in the mid-70s.
Formal Recognition of Harlequin Cats
Because “harlequin” refers to a coat pattern and not a specific breed, it is not formally recognized by any official association or club. However, each club may have its own rules regarding the patterning.
In order for a cat to be considered a harlequin, 50–75% of their coat must be white, at least according to the Fédération Internationale Féline.
Top 3 Unique Facts About Harlequin Cats
1. Many cat breeds can have the harlequin patterning.
As we’ve mentioned, harlequin cats aren’t a specific breed but, instead, a pattern variation that occurs naturally in several popular cat breeds. Some of the most well-known examples of cats with harlequin patterns include Japanese Bobtails, British Shorthairs, Sphynx, Munchkins, and Colorpoint Shorthairs.
2. Harlequin cats can be bi- or tri-colored.
Cats with the harlequin patterning can be bi- or tri-colored. The bicolored harlequin’s coat is predominantly white (50–75%) combined with random markings by one color throughout the body, including the tail. Tricolored harlequins will have the same white base (50–75%) combined with random markings by two different colors on the body.
3. Harlequin patterns can be seen in conjunction with other patterns.
Cats with harlequin coats can be seen in cats that have calico or tabby patterns. For example, harlequins with predominantly white coats can have patches of tabby-patterned fur.
Do Harlequin Cats Make a Good Pet?
Harlequin-patterned cats can make just as good pets as any other cat. If you’re concerned about a cat’s suitability for your lifestyle or family, we recommend researching the particular breed in question and not reading about the cat’s coloration or patterning. Educating yourself about specific breeds can provide insight into their personality, though it is important to note that each cat is different. While some breeds may be described as friendly or lazy, these traits may be obvious in one kitty and not so much in another. Every cat will have their own personality that makes them unique and lovable.
While cat personality is generally not linked to their colors or patterns, some research suggests there may be a link. This study from 2022 says that bicolor cats lean toward the tolerant side, while those with tricolors tend to be more stubborn.
Harlequins are not a separate cat breed but, instead, a specific coloration and pattern marked by a predominately white coat. Harlequin cats can be bi- or tri-colored and are found in a wide variety of highly sought-after and well-loved cat breeds, including Japanese Bobtails, British Shorthairs, and Munchkins.